Strikes, ballots and the class struggle: An addition to the strikes debate

Issue: 149

Richard Morgan

Simon Joyce has helped galvanise a long overdue discussion in International Socialism on the state of workplace class struggle in the UK.1 Though I partially disagree both with his claim that shop stewards have lost control of the strike weapon and with his point that workers lose on “perishable” issues, that is, “issues that management would win by default if workers did not act immediately”,2 I agree with the tone and emphasis of Simon’s article which points to a refreshingly more positive assessment of workplace organisation than is commonplace on the left. In particular he makes four very important points:

    “The current low level of strike action is not straightforward evidence of a lack of combativity”.3

    The downturn was not only a time of defeat but also “a period of transition from one regime for conducting relations between unions and employers to another”.4

    Making simple comparisons between today’s workplace ­struggles and those of the 1968-72 upturn is a fruitless activity; “it is a mistake to measure the present situation using standards derived from a historically unusual period, and will only lead to disorientation”.5

    He also rescues casework from the appalling condescension of ­revolutionaries—on which I comment further in Appendix 2.

In this article I will expand on my disagreements but will also argue for a positive explanation for the lack of strike days in certain circumstances, which supports the general positive tone of Simon’s work. This argument will need to be absorbed into our understanding of the balance of class forces as a part of the picture (but not the whole picture) that contradicts the overall pessimistic tone about the workplace of so many writers on the left.6 I will add some practical examples of organising under neoliberalism to provide a specific counter-argument to the workplace pessimists. Like Simon’s article this will be entirely Britain-centric and I apologise to comrades from other countries for this, but given that most of it is drawn from my own experience there is little I can do about that.

The discussion so far on the level of strike action has concentrated solely on the position of our side, on our strengths and our weaknesses. Every article assumes that whether or not there is a strike is up to the working class and the working class alone. So if there aren’t strikes, this is solely a sign of weakness on our side. Therefore the debate concentrates on finding that weakness.

But in the class struggle it takes two to tango. For there to be a strike, the employers too must need to fight. As Tony Cliff once said, if everyone knew the result of a strike in advance there wouldn’t be any—if the employers knew they were going to lose they would concede, and if the workers knew their action would fail, they’d forget it. One trend that can be observed is that of employers conceding enough for the unions to deliver significant gains without the members ever having to take action. In many cases, the ballot process can be used as a test of strength, allowing employers to retreat when union support looks too strong—and employers do indeed retreat.

Ballot victories

Let me give some examples. The first is from my own experience. In 2008, at the beginning of the financial crisis, I was lead lay negotiator for the pay claim for the Collective Bargaining Unit (CBU) at the company where I worked. With the retail price index (RPI, the measure of inflation) at 3.2 percent the company withdrew their initial offer of 2.2 percent and sought to impose a wage freeze. To cut a good but long story short, we balloted for industrial action and on an 88 percent turnout received a 92 percent vote for strike action and a 93 percent vote for action short of a strike. The mass meeting held after the ballot voted unanimously to strike one day in week one, two days in week two, three days in week three, etc, until we ended up on indefinite strike. The company caved in and conceded our claim in full (RPI+1.75 percent for four years, with RPI being the highest figure from November to February) without us having to take any of our planned action. The only compromises were that we agreed a) to delay payment for three months till the start of the new financial year (it would be backdated) and b) to keep the deal embargoed. A victory based on the ballot but not on any actual strike days—a “ballot victory”.

The second example is from the 2014 pay deal for Jaguar Land Rover (JLR) workers. The company’s initial pay offer also included an attack on the pension scheme. It was overwhelmingly rejected. Of approximately 15,000 ballot papers issued some 12,881 voted against the offer and only 454 in favour. JLR returned to the table and a much better offer was negotiated by the unions. The ballot of the revised offer saw workers vote overwhelmingly in favour of the deal. The deal can be summarised as follows:

    All attacks on the pension scheme removed.

    A two-year deal of pay offers above RPI (2.2 percent above RPI in year one).

    All skilled employees converted to permanent on 1 January 2015.

    All semi-skilled employees on fixed term contract converted to permanent on 1 January 2015.

    Increases in the rate at which employees progress through their salary band, so that the deal was effectivley worth 8.4 percent of basic salary to a production operator in year one.

This was another victory based on the ballot and not on any actual strike days. This ballot wasn’t even an industrial action ballot, just a ­consultative ballot.

A third example is from a lorry drivers’ dispute. In a Socialist Workers Party internal bulletin in 2011 I quoted the example in the East Midlands whereby “a logistics company was forced to increase its annual social hours payments from £1,000 to £2,400. No strike was taken. So this does not appear in our “class struggle” statistics. However, if you were one of those lorry drivers who voted for strike action, you’d be pretty pleased with the resultant extra £1,400 per annum.

Indeed, the late Bob Crow’s reputation for militancy was based far more on winning strike ballots than on the actual number of strikes called (though strikes were called). As Ralph Darlington has written of the RMT on the London Underground:

During the nine years between January 2000 and December 2008 the RMT balloted for industrial action on no less than 50 different occasions, with ballots leading to strike action on [only] 18 of these occasions… Frequently such ballot results have been used as a form of sabre-rattling designed to bolster the union’s bargaining leverage, with no action resulting, although sometimes with significant concessions being extracted.7

In other words, only 36 percent of successful strike ballots were turned into actual action by the most militant trade union leader of the time. Dave Sherry from Glasgow has quoted his own experience in twice defeating attempted attacks on his members’ pension scheme simply by overwhelming ballot results in consultative ballots (“on a 70 percent turnout we got an 80 percent yes for industrial action”).8

The final example I wish to use is the success of Unite the union in defending pension schemes at Rolls Royce in 2014. Faced with the company proposing further attacks on their pension scheme, Rolls Royce stewards agreed the strategy of balloting all sites on contributing to a strike fund to allow one crucial section in Derby to be balloted for indefinite strike action, their official strike pay to be topped up by their own dispute fund. The specific Derby section delivered a 96 percent vote for strike action on a turnout of over 80 percent. The company backed down and not only withdrew all attacks on the pension scheme but also ended up agreeing to absorb the extra national insurance costs caused by the government’s abolition of the State Earnings Related Pension scheme. (Unite at GKN aerospace also recently followed the same strategy on this issue with similar results.)

As Simon has previously written, “Balloting has had an unintended consequence: ballots give legitimacy to a grievance or demand in the eyes of employers, union members and others”.9 However, in ­discussions with comrades—both members of the Socialist Workers Party and ­non-members—about these “ballot victories”, the argument I receive is that these are exceptions rather than the rule. Of course, this is correct; if they weren’t exceptions we’d be in an upturn. But to state that they are exceptions is simply to observe them rather than analyse them. So let’s analyse them.

The victory in the Rolls Royce pension dispute offers a contrasting example to the public sector pension dispute of 2011. The same issue, but with a very different result. Yet the trade union bureaucracy is the same. The Marxist analysis of the trade union bureaucracy does not differentiate between bureaucracies in the public and private sectors. So how do we explain the very different outcomes?

There are three differences that need to be highlighted. First, the Rolls Royce workers were not fighting the government, while the public sector workers were; secondly, the Rolls Royce workers had an industrial action strategy for their pensions to win. This contrasts with the public sector one-day strikes which were more strike action as protest than strike action as industrial action.10 And thirdly, the union at Rolls Royce delivered a massive vote on a huge turnout, compared to the 29 percent turnout in Unison’s pension ballot.11 I don’t know the specific details of how they delivered that ballot outcome, but it cannot have been done without strong workplace organisation.

By way of example I do know how we delivered our 88 percent return referred to previously. We used the industrial action ballot as an organising tool—going round the offices checking that everyone’s address was correctly recorded by the union (at least 10 percent of our members’ details were incorrect), getting these details updated, initiating the ballot, going round again and checking that everyone had received a ballot paper, then going round again and checking that everyone had voted. Such activity meant that the workplace was taken into the postal ballot.

In the examples above, the union had strong workplace organisation and the ballot ended up proving this to the employers such that the employers retreated. In contrast, our analysis of the public sector disputes has tended to concentrate only on the undisputed failings of the trade union bureaucracy. This is correct in and of itself but is only a partial explanation.

There remains an additional explanation, the lack of workplace organisation within the public sector. Undoubtedly there were a small number of public sector workplaces that replicated this process, for example schools in Tower Hamlets and Camden delivered high votes for strike action in June 2010 on exactly the same balloting basis, but I am unaware of them being used as examples to spur other public sector activists to follow suit. By failing to analyse the “ballot victories” in the private sector we are undermining our argument for workers’ power and at the same time depriving public sector activists of examples to show the necessity of improving their workplace organisation to better control the bureaucracy in their fight against austerity. If Unison’s workplace organisation had been strong enough to deliver a 92 percent vote on an 88 percent turnout, the bureaucracy would have found it much harder to sell out.

When I’ve discussed this with public sector trade unionists they have pointed to the reality of objective circumstances in the public sector that makes workplace organisation more difficult than organising in just one factory, eg council trade unionists can often be spread across tens of different workplaces in the one city. This is correct. But these are circumstances to be overcome. Consider the British Airlines Stewards and Stewardesses Association branch of Unite. Their workplaces (the planes!) will often be thousands of miles from each other. This does not prevent them from organising. Or bus drivers, who spend the majority of their working day on their own away from their workmates. I’ll quote from a trade unionist who was a British Gas engineer in Leamington. His workforce would collect their work cases and then set out individually in their vans. This presented an organisational problem. How to get them together collectively? He did this by organising a breakfast club to which everyone contributed and which in turn provided cheaper coffee and tea before they set off. The majority joined and this provided the opportunity for collective discussion. I’m not suggesting that everyone follows this specific tactic. I’m just pointing out that with imagination the objective difficulties to organisation can be overcome.

Rank and file activists need to formulate specific demands on their trade union bureaucracy to help build that workplace organisation rather than just propagandistic demands for this or that strike action, eg help with printing hard copy newsletters to be desk dropped,12 running education for specific workplaces on the organising agenda, recruitment days, etc. Do not assume the union will not help, because often it will, and if they won’t then pressurise them to do so.

“Perishable” issues

On the “perishable” issues, that is, “issues that management would win by default if workers did not act immediately”, my own experience is that our recognition agreement protects the “status quo” so that as long as we spot management introducing something new and shout about it, then the company returns to the previous situation until we have negotiated on the issue. The key element here is at least to have enough members in every section who know who their representatives are, such that the union is informed about new management procedures as soon as they are implemented. If a new management procedure has been in place for 12 months before you notice it, then you have little chance of changing it; if it’s only been in place for 12 days then you have a good possibility of changing it. This takes us back to the crucial importance of workplace organisation.13

Are shop stewards losing control over the strike weapon?

Simon argues that “by the early 1990s the strike weapon had effectively been taken out of the hands of shop stewards. This key development has important implications for the way workplace trade unionism has subsequently developed, and is the main explanation for the stability of the current low level of strikes in the UK”.14 I think this exaggerates the situation. If Simon had written that the strike weapon was no longer the sole prerogative of the shop stewards, then I would have agreed. But to suggest that shop stewards have no say is simply not my experience of the last 25 years of private sector workplace activity. In the private sector, particularly in Unite, lay stewards will always be involved in national negotiations and will definitely have a say on whether or not to call a strike ballot. In the Tata steel pensions ballot, for example, the decision to recommend the compromise “was taken at a meeting in London of 100 senior trade union delegates from across the company”.15 In the rejection of the JLR offer mentioned previously, the final decision was taken by 200 shop stewards.16 This is the norm, not the exception.

I accept that it is often difficult to win the demand for a strike ballot as nearly every union expects stewards to prove that they’ve exhausted every possible route to a negotiated settlement before seeking to resolve any grievance or claim by industrial action. The crucial point is that the reps tend to agree with this procedure. They take the new “regime for conducting relations between unions and employers” as a given and have as yet no mass reason to challenge it.

The consciousness of workplace activists

This raises the question of the consciousness of workplace activists. In many ways this is a subjective question, on which it is difficult to construct quantifiable indicators. However, qualitatively I can offer some examples.

Last year we secured a 16 percent pay rise for tens of call centre workers. From start to finish the claim took just under six months with the pay rise being backdated to an earlier date than the members had hoped to achieve. It involved two apparently contradictory processes—on the one hand stacks of meetings with the employer, days17 spent researching wage rates and writing papers presenting the case that it was in the employer’s interest to grant this pay rise (to reduce the use of much more expensive agency staff by making a permanent job more attractive). On the other hand regular organising meetings with the relevant members needed to be held, involving them with every decision, taking votes at every meeting, and keeping everything off social media. My concern throughout was that the rank and file would lose interest given the time it was taking. But they never showed any sign of wavering and we achieved the desired result. Our leverage in this situation was twofold. On the one hand was the market situation whereby these workers were being underpaid and knew it.18 The existence of agency staff earning significantly more than the permanent staff was a constant source of discontent which management were aware of. At the same time we had the leverage of a union organising among the staff with a local leadership which had previously shown itself to the employer as being capable and willing to win strike votes should it be required.

But the key point is that the process delivered. No one showed any sign of frustration with the new “regime for conducting relations between unions and employers”. Why would they? It delivered.

We have just recruited a wave of new shop stewards of which five are under the age of 28. What else does this younger generation understand about industrial relations other than ballots and so forth? What older activists may regard as a restricting and frustrating industrial relations environment, younger shop stewards accept as being the situation they will work within. But their acceptance of this situation is not due to lack of combativity or lack of confidence, because from their point of view it can deliver.

I see no hostility from activists (young or old) to the principle of strike action, as demonstrated by their willingness to give solidarity donations to workers on strike. Our union branch voted unanimously two years ago to add a regular solidarity item to our monthly branch meeting standing orders. So every single month we look for a dispute to support. And whether there are 53, 35 or 8 people attending there is never any opposition to giving solidarity. My impression is that workers in dispute do not find it hard to win solidarity donations from other trade union activists. For example, the PCS strikers at the National Gallery raised over £160,000 in solidarity donations. It would be good to hear from other activists whether this is their experience too, as it gives us an important indication of the mood of trade union activists.

Let me give a further example of the consciousness of activists from the November 2013 Unite sector conferences. Members of the Socialist Workers Party intervened in a session of 500 workplace delegates over the issue of the Grangemouth defeat. My Unite comrade Ray put our argument, which was primarily that the defeat was unnecessary given the fact that Unite was recognised at the other nine Ineos manufacturing sites in the UK where solidarity action was possible; that solidarity from electricians and tanker drivers at Grangemouth itself was possible; and that industrial action could have been used to put political pressure on the Scottish National Party and Labour. What is interesting is the reaction of the delegates to Ray’s speech. The reaction verged from polite agreement to enthusiastic endorsement, with a small minority cheering his comments. Ray put our case well in a non-sectarian manner. But, as Marx argued, social being determines consciousness rather than the reverse.19 So a positive reaction (of varying degrees) from 500 workplace delegates speaks less to Ray’s powers of persuasion but more to the fact that the audience was receptive to the argument. And this speaks of their social being. They were (and are) used to the union being able to stand up to the employer, should the union adopt the right tactics for the right occasion. The consensus was that the union had suffered an unnecessary defeat by not having a plan B, and that therefore a winning result was possible. However, if the same situation had occurred in the New Realism years immediately after the defeat of the miners, we would have been laughed out of court for making such a contribution. In other words the consciousness of workplace activists over the last 20 years has recovered from the depths of late 1980s and early 1990s and does not support the pessimistic analysis of workplace organisation.

Workplace pessimism on the left

In an SWP internal document in 2013 Neil from Edinburgh wrote that “our class has suffered a series of defeats since the 1970s with only the abolition of the poll tax” as an exception. Neil is not alone in his pessimistic assessment. In a meeting at Marxism 2015 another SWP comrade spoke about how we’d gone through “a 30-year period of defeats”.

Think about what those two comrades are saying. Either 25 or 30 years of defeat. I’m going to argue with Neil’s position simply because it’s mathematically the less pessimistic position. So for 25 years week in, week out, month in, month out, year in, year out, decade in, decade out—defeat, defeat, defeat. I’ve been a workplace rep for every single one of those 25 years. Indeed for most of those 25 years I’ve been a senior lay negotiator with whichever private sector employer I was working for. So do I deserve the Lenin award for resilience for keeping going in the workplace during 25 years of defeat? Or do I need to be taken outside and shot for being so utterly useless as a rep that I was incapable of empowering my members over 25 years to win even the tiniest of victories?20 And while we’re at it, shouldn’t those same questions be asked to all the existing 200,00021 lay workplace reps? Indeed, how can a movement of defeat have 200,000 workplace reps? There are 6.4 million trade unionists in the UK, a level that has declined a little but not drastically since 1996.22 Why would millions of workers pay up to £14 a month to stay in a movement that has only delivered defeat after defeat for the last 25 years?

The “decades of defeat” argument is wrong. It’s not wrong because it’s nine years of defeat rather than 25 years. It’s wrong because we have not gone through a period of permanent defeat ever since the signal workers’ qualified victory of 1994. Instead we’ve been in a period where sometimes we win, sometimes they win and sometimes it’s a draw. Given that average real wages have risen for the vast majority of this period,23 this would suggest that we have won more times than we have lost. Similarly the sharp rise in income inequality which took place from 1974 to 1991 effectively paused in this period; the Gini coefficient—a measure of inequality—was at 0.24 in 1979 and rose to 0.34 in 1991. It has fluctuated around that level since then such that in 2014 the Gini coefficient level was still at 0.34.24

What the “decades of defeat” comrades are doing is misconstruing what Simon calls the new “regime for conducting relations between unions and employers” as a permanent situation of defeat. Hopefully I have already given enough evidence to prove otherwise. Though the creation of this new “regime for conducting relations between unions and employers” was the result of a defeat, it is not itself a defeat. The older generation may whine about having to go through collective procedures to achieve the 14 percent pay rise achieved earlier, but the younger generation do not. They do not perceive this regime as a defeat because they know of no other and because it is still very possible to achieve worthwhile results under this new industrial relations regime. It is true both that in order to achieve a return to the ­pre-downturn balance of class forces our side needs a major industrial offensive, and that we haven’t had one. But not achieving such a breakthrough is not the same as being defeated. Indeed the current balance of forces is not just the result of the downturn defeat but is also the result of the resilience of trade unionism.

Here I want to return to Simon’s point about comparisons with the 1974 high point of trade unionism leading to disorientation. In 1974 trade union membership reached 11.75 million. Today it is 6.4 million—an awful decline of 45 percent.25 If you look at the statistics in this manner then workplace pessimism is justified. That is precisely why ruling class commentators always choose to make the comparison between today’s level of trade union membership and that of 1974. Yet the vast majority of that decline took place between 1974 and 1996. For the 12 years from 1996 to 2008 trade union membership stabilised around 6.9 to 7 million until the recession of 2008 caused it to fall by 7 percent to 6.4 million.26

It would be better if there were no decline at all, but it is incorrect to describe the last 19 years as an “era of weak and declining trade unionism” as Neil Davidson does in New Left Review.27 And this relates to the consciousness of workplace activists. From my experience (I am unable to find any statistics) the majority of trade union activists have become active since 1996, ie in the last 19 years. Indeed, in my workplace committee I am the only rep who was a trade union activist before 1996. But this hardly makes the others “newbies”. So their experience is one of national trade union stability, not at all of decline. For the best activists who adopt the organising agenda (see my appendix 3 below), their own workplace experience will be one of growth, not decline. Basing your industrial perspective on the massive decline prior to 1996 rather than the recent 19-year stability since that date puts you out of touch with the lived experience of most trade union activists.


My conclusion differs very little from that offered by Martin Upchurch.28 But I would add three things. First, socialists have to strive consciously to use the normal route of industrial relations in an “organising” manner. This means always seeking to increase rank and file involvement by whatever means. For example, I ask every single person that I do casework for if they will help the union in any way. Every union meeting I run, whether a section meeting for a collective grievance or a branch meeting, has a sheet where attendees are asked if they will help distribute union newsletters. If strikes are harder to achieve (and that is not always for negative reasons) then we have to use the situation we are in to build workplace organisation.

Secondly, the “ballot victories” referred to earlier are objective evidence that parts of British capitalism can afford to pay, that parts of UK capitalism are not “in crisis”. But should this situation end, then their room for manoeuvre will be reduced. In other words, we would be in a different situation if JLR or Rolls Royce or Tata Steel had been forced by economic circumstances to take their workforces on.

Thirdly, the Tories’ attack on the current legal situation for trade unions opens the possibility of a wide layer of those 200,000 trade union activists being politicised as the rights they have got used to come under threat. The Unite the Resistance initiative, which is campaigning against the Trade Union Bill, could be about to find its biggest audience.

An overly pessimistic analysis of the balance of class forces will not help us take the movement forward. This article has been an attempt to address that.

Appendix 1: Two examples against the workplace pessimists

I want to produce a couple of examples from my own experience to argue against the workplace pessimists, the “neoliberalism has removed the ability of the working class to fight back” brigade.

Example one

I started my “career” as a workplace white collar activist in the IT ­department of a multinational manufacturing company in 1980. The shop floor was very well organised. The clerical, technical and scientific staff were also well unionised. However, in the 1950s the unions had accepted that so-called “professional” jobs were excluded from collective bargaining and union recognition. Over time the company pursued a strategy of declaring more and more jobs as “professional”, such that by the time I joined the company “professional” staff were the single biggest unit of white collar workers and were excluded from trade union recognition.

The IT department was designated as “professional” and was part of the first wave of mass IT workers.29 None of my colleagues lived in a council house. The majority were homeowners with mortgages. The minority were younger private renters aspiring to become homeowners. It was a new industry with no traditions of trade unionism for the simple fact that it was new. In my department pay rises were awarded on an individual basis dependent upon performance appraisals. So what does a Marxist do in that situation? You could theorise on the way that capitalism is changing the workforce and its culture (all true) and draw conclusions about neoliberalism and the knowledge economy etc. Or you could try and organise. I chose the latter, using the lessons taught to me by the comrades from the International Socialists shop floor factory branch at Woodhead’s Coil Springs, part of the automotive industry.

This was not a difficult choice for me. Marxism has always stressed the dynamic nature of capitalism—“the bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionising the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society”.30 Therefore new occupations are always being created by capitalism: car workers; air crew; air traffic controllers; film crew; sound engineers; telephone engineers; electricity workers; gas engineers; and so on and so forth. At one time or another all these jobs were new; all of them would have had no traditions of trade unionism precisely because they were new occupations. But they all have trade union recognition now, because workers somewhere decided to organise and build rather than theorise about their “newness”.

So how to organise? The issue I chose was individual pay, on the understanding that, whatever the situation, capitalism will always try and get away with paying the least it can to any workforce. So each year I received my pay rise and was told to “keep it secret, you’re in the top 5 percent”. This sounded unlikely to me. I conducted a verbal survey and discovered that, lo and behold, every single person was apparently “in the top 5 percent”.

On revealing this at a social gathering,31 the more experienced ­colleagues just laughed as if this was obvious but many were very angry. I argued that the company knew what we were all paid so they were the only people to benefit from keeping the pay rises secret. This must have made sense as we agreed to share pay rise information. Within a few years this had the desired effect of pushing up pay rises in a sort of white collar version of the shop floor “do it yourself reformism”. Eventually the majority of the department were union members. The company prevented recognition by the simple device of merging my department with another whenever I reached a majority union membership (at least four times) and thus reducing the trade union density for the now enlarged unit. It was also because the membership were unwilling to take action for recognition, though they were willing to take action to defend me. So I never achieved formal trade union recognition, and thus this was only a partial victory. Yet in 1984 we were sufficiently organised to have a lunchtime meeting of over 60 people addressed by Coventry National Union of Mineworkers which voted unanimously to hold a weekly collection for the miners, something we continued until one month after the end of the miners’ strike.

Example two

In the late 1990s my colleagues and I were outsourced to an offshoring company. Six months previously a group of similar workers from a different company (call it company B) had been outsourced to the same offshoring company. Each group of workers had union recognition with the same trade union, both groups worked in the same industry doing similar jobs and both groups were outsourced to the same company. Yet their experiences of the outsourcing were very different. The workers in company B found their union organisation ignored, and a majority of the outsourced employees were moved off their original employer’s workplace and dispersed around the country such that almost 50 percent of them resigned. By comparison our union organisation grew from strength to strength (see reference to previous victory earlier): not only did we never suffer a single compulsory redundancy, but we never even had a single person put at risk of compulsory redundancy.

Now if the workers of company B had been avid readers of our literature, I’m sure that Neil from Edinburgh’s arguments about neoliberalism would have made sense—outsourcing, offshoring, globalisation, weak unions. His workplace pessimism would have completely fitted with their experience. However, to my members it would have made no sense. We consistently got above RPI pay awards, and overtime pay and rates were always without exception strictly enforced. The difference between the two was not objective circumstances. The difference between the two experiences was subjective organisation. My workplace had rank and file workplace organisation with a socialist leadership. Company B had neither. And this is my argument with the workplace pessimists. They misunderstand subjective weakness as objective structural weakness. In doing so they reduce the scope for human agency and turn an English hill into an unconquerable Everest. Their arguments provide absolutely no help whatsoever to any workplace activist.

Appendix 2: On casework

Individual casework is seen as being a crucial part of the trade union rep’s job. According to a government commissioned focus group of workplace reps, “for the vast majority of participants their union work was dominated by individual representation and casework”.32 Another study said that “most [shop stewards, convenors, branch officers and the like] help individual members by representing them in grievance and disciplinary matters or by resolving other personal issues at work”,33 and the 2011 Workplace Employment Relations Study found that “taking both union and non-union representatives together, the most common issues that representatives spent time on were discipline and grievances”; this accounted for, on average, 66 percent of the time spent on union activities.34

The left has rarely discussed casework. The usual attitude has been that it’s a necessary burden that socialists have to undertake in order to retain creditability, an attitude that I have shared. Yet the previous quotes show that casework takes up the majority of the union time of the majority of reps. I think a discussion on this activity is long overdue. This is just a start of the discussion and I hope other workplace activists will contribute and add to it. The following are points from casework that I have learnt from the last few years:

    Activists need to take casework seriously and embrace it as a necessary part of the job. If the individual is supported correctly, then even when the union loses the individual is still supportive of the union.

    Individuals who have been supported can be persuaded to become reps or newsletter distributors for the union, ie to get more active.

    Casework provides a picture of what is going on at work under the surface—an office may appear all calm and peaceful, then an individual case highlights the tensions underneath the surface calm.

    Casework is incredibly time consuming—there is no escape from this fact. But it can be used to create collective issues. So whenever you can see beyond the individual issue to collectivise the situation you are taking a step forward; for example I defended various individuals against sickness absence disciplinaries and this ended up being a collective successful campaign to modify and weaken the sickness absence process, but that campaign would never have started without the individual cases to begin with. Reps should always check whether the individual case is in fact a sign of a collective issue which can be addressed as such.

    Casework throws light on the employers’ procedures, so can be used to change these procedures for the better.

    If you and an individual discover a fault in a procedure then try and persuade the individual to help you win the motion to correct it at your next branch meeting.

    Without breaching confidentiality, always let your immediate section know of the sort of issues your casework is covering—this will ensure their support for your time away from work

    Always celebrate every casework victory—our reps always email each other when we win—every step to boost confidence helps.

    Cases can be won by a mild threat to go outside the procedure such as “if the company does not stop this disciplinary then I have the member’s permission to write up their situation in a union newsletter and distribute to every member of staff in the building. If you are confident of the correctness of your position then let me get on with it. If not, then I suggest you halt this process ASAP”. Activists must not underestimate the power of union ­newsletters to challenge the employer’s hegemony. Management do not like their poor behaviour made public within the company; it is a more useful threat than you imagine. But you have to have the workplace organisation to enable you to carry it out.

Appendix 3: The official organising agenda

The TUC’s organising academy was created in 1998 and the TGWU’s in 2004. Unite’s “organising agenda” is a continuation of the TGWU’s35 and has two main strands to it:

    The 100 Percent Unite campaign to increase membership where recognition exists.

    The spreading of trade union recognition into previously ­unrecognised areas (“greenfield organising”).

The TGWU’s organising strategy met a target of 10,000 new members per year, plus recognition wins in the airline Flybe, and in the poultry industry such as in Bernard Matthews. Unite’s 100 Percent campaign, launched in 2011, had by 2014 delivered 144,182 new members. And new recognition agreements continue. There is no research that summarises the total of new trade union agreements but Unite claims nine new recognition agreements in the motor supply industry in 2014 alone. The TUC claimed in 2006 that since 2000 “over 1,100 deals have been signed and over 310,000 employees have gained the right to be collectively represented by a trade union”.36


1: Joyce, 2015. See also Upchurch, 2015, Gluckstein, 2015, O’Brien, 2015, and the related debate between Mark O’Brien and Dave Lyddon (O’Brien, 2014, and Lyddon, 2015). I wish to thank Charlie Kimber and Michael Bradley for suggesting I write this and to the comrade from the shipyards who spoke at Marxism 2015 stating that, contrary to all the pessimism, he had not had a below inflation pay rise for years. He demonstrated that someone else was also winning and that I wasn’t living in a parallel reality! The opinions expressed in this article are my own.

2: Joyce, 2015, pp132-133.

3: Joyce, 2015, p140.

4: Joyce, 2015, p137.

5: Joyce, 2015, p142.

6: For example, Davidson, 2013; see also the response—Hardy and Choonara, 2013.

7: Darlington, 2009.

8: Personal communication by email.

9: Joyce, 2015, p138.

10: See my SWP internal bulletin contribution in 2014 and Lyddon, 2015.

12: Building a network to desk drop hard copy newsletters is a first step to building a shop stewards’ committee.

13: My experience may not be the norm so I would very much appreciate contributions from other workplace activists on this point.

14: Joyce, 2015, p120.

17: Most of it in my own time. I am on nothing like 100 percent facility time and in general am opposed to 100 percent facility time.

18: I make no apologies for making use of a specific labour market situation. What else was the “do it yourself reformism” of the 1950s and 1960s but precisely local stewards taking advantage of their labour market?

19: Marx, 1859.

20: I’m not bothered about the award but please don’t vote to shoot me!

23: A 2014 Office for National Statistics report stated that “since 1975 average earnings for full time employees have more than doubled after taking into account inflation”—

25: Simon’s article gives good objective explanations for the decline in membership, to which I’d like to add the abolition of the closed shop. If this existed today in all the workplaces covered by trade union agreements we could probably add another 1 million members to our figures.

27: Davidson, 2014.

28: Upchurch, 2015.

29: You no longer needed to be a geeky genius to write computer languages (such as COBOL, IMS, JCL and SQL) that were now English-like.

30: Marx and Engels, 1976.

31: Until the office became more confident, most discussions about the union and pay had to start by taking place outside of work itself.

32: Department of Trade and Industry, 2007, p59.

33: Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform, 2009, p15.

34: Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and others, 2011, p16.

35: Unite the union was created by a merger of the Transport and General Workers Union (TGWU) and Amicus in 2007.

36: Go to


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Davidson, Neil, 2013, “The Neoliberal Era in Britain: Historical Developments and Current Perspectives”, International Socialism 139 (summer),

Davidson, Neil, 2014, “A Scottish Watershed”, New Left Review, II/89,

DBERR, 2009, Reps in Action: How Workplaces can gain from Modern Union Representation” (May),

DBIS and others, 2011, “The 2011 Workplace Employment Relations Study: First Findings”,

DTI, 2007, “Consultation Document: Workplace Representatives: A Review of their Facilities and Facility Time” (January),

Gluckstein, Donny, 2015, “The Question of Confidence: A Reply to Simon Joyce”, International Socialism 146 (spring),

Hardy, Jane, and Joseph Choonara, 2013, “Neoliberalism and the British Working Class: A Reply to Neil Davidson”, International Socialism 140 (autumn),

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Lyddon, Dave, 2015, “Bureaucratic Mass Strikes: A Response to Mark O’Brien”, International Socialism 146 (spring),

Marx, Karl, 1859, “A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy”,

Marx, Karl, and Frederick Engels, 1976 [1848], “Manifesto of the Communist Party”, in Marx and Engels, Collected Works (Progress Publishers),

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O’Brien, Mark, 2015, “Revolutionaries in the Unions: The Reality of the Strike”, International Socialism 147 (summer),

Upchurch, Martin, 2015, “The end of the “safe space” for unions? A response to Simon Joyce”, International Socialism 146 (spring),